With hundreds of gangs roaming the streets and a soaring violent crime rate, Venezuela’s capital city is on track to beat last year's enormous murder rate.
Caracas has already registered 3,218 homicides during the first 10 months of 2012, putting it easily on track to beat last year’s 3,488 homicides and adding to the fears that the new re-elected President Hugo Chávez is not doing enough to keep Venezuelans safe as gang violence proliferates.
The statistics were compiled by Venezuelan national police agency, CICPC, which estimated that 70 percent of murders in Caracas and its surrounding metropolitan area were related to armed assaults and warfare between the city’s street gangs. Throughout Caracas, street gangs have grown in recent years with some consisting of less than 10 people controlling only a small area.
The most violent neighborhoods are Libertador - where the presidential palace and other government buildings are located – along with the poorer 23 de Enero barrio, that has registered 2,580 murders this year.
“With the exception of Ivory Coast, the murder rate in any other African countries is lower than that in Venezuela,” Venezuelan researcher Luis Bravo told El Universal. “Neighboring Colombia was the most violent country in Latin America until in the early 2000's. Then the figures dropped and now we (Venezuela) are far ahead, not only of Colombia, but also of Chile (3.7 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants) and even Haiti (6.9).”
Venezuela is considered to be one of the most deadly countries in the western hemisphere, with 19,336 homicides occurring last year, according to the Venezuelan Violence Observatory. That comes out to be on average 53 murder per day – giving the country a murder rate of about 67 per 100,000 inhabitants.
While not as bad as Honduras’ 88 murders per 100,000, it makes the drug war plagued Mexico look almost tame with its 15 per 100,000 rate. The United States averages about 4.8 murder per 100,000, according to recent United Nations statistics.
Despite a radical drop in poverty levels after President Hugo Chávez took office in 1999, violent crime has conversely risen every year with abductions increasing 20-fold between 1999 and 2011 to 1,105. This has led some to wonder if this violence is a case of the have and have-nots.
“Demographic changes, industrialization, almost disappearance of the country areas, the development of big urban poor areas. Also, the traditional risk factors: poverty, unemployment, and social inequality,” Bravo said when listing the triggers of violence. “Nonetheless, the latter element has greater influence than poverty.”
While the Chávez administration has made some steps to quell the violence – mainly by revamping Caracas’ police force and outlawing firearms – the country’s weak judiciary system has allowed gangs to roam almost unhindered in certain neighborhoods. Extrajudicial killings by police officers and security forces also plague Venezuelans.
“Violent crime is rampant in Venezuela, where extrajudicial killings by security agents remain a problem. The minister of the interior and justice has estimated that police commit one of every five crimes,” a Human Rights Watch reported stated. “Impunity for human rights violations remains the norm. In 2010, prosecutors charged individuals allegedly responsible for abuses in less than 3 percent of cases investigated.”
Chávez said shortly after his reelection in October that he wants a community-oriented police to help bring down the violence and “to fight against the crime that causes so much damage to society.” The problem is, as critics are quick to point out, that since taking office crime in the country has risen steadily.
This new police force is part of Chávez’s plan for “21st Century Socialism,” which entails among other things expropriating a number of businesses, opening universities and forging stronger ties with nations such as Iran and Russia.
Despite criticism by opponents about these changes and the soaring homicide rate, last month’s elections – deemed by international observers to be fair – show that the significant majority of Venezuelans back the moves.
While some changes may be easier to implement than others, stopping violent crime will be a very tough battle.
"In a stable democracy, or a stable dictatorship, citizens and [government] agencies know the rules," said Andromachi Tseloni, a professor of criminology at Nottingham Trent University in the UK. "When things are changing, there are more opportunities to do things you wouldn't normally do."